WITS Voices: The Circle in the Room

By Daemond Arrindell, WITS Writer-in-Residence

It was my first day returning to a high school on the south side of Seattle, where I have taught during residencies for the past three years. I hadn’t seen the kids for more than six months after working with them last winter, so I decided to teach a lesson addressing change and making sense of a world that doesn’t.

We begin by discussing how they’ve changed in the past year. Some are taller, have deeper voices, went through this break up, that break up, talk about this rumor, that rumor. From there, we shift to how the world around them has changed. The main subjects of police, violence, racism, and protest are at the center of the conversation when one student opens his mouth, and the rhetoric he’s sharing sounds terribly reminiscent of a certain politician known for his unapologetic brazenness as well as his lack of facts. This young man is throwing out blanket statements like he’s trying to insulate the class for the winter. A bunch of hot topic words are put into play, like “terror” and “ISIS.” And then he lays the blame for specific terrorist acts into the laps of two billion Muslims.

This is all coming from the mouth of a young man of color and, to make matters worse, this is in a school attended predominantly by black and brown kids, and several of this student’s classmates are Muslim. One is a young woman wearing a hijab and sitting directly next to him. Of all the schools I teach in throughout the Pacific Northwest, this is the last place I expected to find cases of Islamophobia. And yet here it is, stinking up the classroom.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more grateful for the numerous race and social justice conversations I’ve had, because you can never see these things coming. Ignorance has a way of creeping up when you least expect it. This was one of those times. And while I feel relatively positive about how I handled the situation, what I did is not what I want to focus on. The classroom teacher who was also present during all of this (and happens to be a white woman) stepped in to not only counter the outspoken student with facts, but she showed herself to be a true ally when she told him that when he says, “Muslim,” he is also talking about his fellow classmates, whose humanity she greatly valued and was now defending. When she finished speaking, the classroom gave her an unsolicited round of applause. But that’s also not what I want to focus on.

I am also not writing this to focus on the student who was repeating verbatim the same ignorant stereotypes and generalizations that our country and some of its leaders have been stating without any concern for the damage it causes. He is actually not the issue that needed attention at the time, although he did receive plenty of it, and we did take the time to unpack the things he said and the myths that spawned them. He and all of the students we work with through WITS are simply reflections of the world around them, so when students voice something hurtful or hateful, chances are they didn’t think of it on their own.

The people who really needed and deserved our attention were the Muslim students who were offended by what was said directly and the other students in the room who were offended indirectly. Instances like this can make a classroom unsafe in an instant and, if not handled effectively, the sense of safety may never return. And typically, unless some form of threat or physical violence takes place, nothing further will come of the issue. What I really want to talk about is how this incident was handled by the school.

The teacher took it beyond the students and went to the administration. She discussed the event with the dean of the school, not in an effort to punish the young man at its center, but to support the students whom had been labeled and insulted. I wasn’t privy to any of this until I received an email letting me know that our next class was going to begin with a restorative circle, a collaborative tool for engaging a group to aid in embracing conflict as an opportunity to build community and relationships, cultivate trust, and empower—basically, a gathering of the students to discuss what took place and how they feel/felt about it. So when I walked into class, the room was rearranged into a circle and almost every student was present, as well as the dean, the head of the English department, and the community member who helps facilitate the Muslim Student Union.

I won’t spend a great deal of time discussing what took place in the circle, but I will say that it was transformative—that all of the students had a chance to be heard, that there was a chance for the Muslim students to address the ugly trend of pigeonholing them and labeling them as terrorists or as violent people without knowing any real facts about their religion. Beyond that, it wasn’t about assigning blame or pointing fingers or anyone being deemed a hero. It was simply an opportunity for real life lessons to be learned through open dialogue. I was honored to be a part of it. And it still blows me away that this was facilitated by the faculty and administration. That the adults in charge took their students’ emotional health and well being so seriously that they put the academics on hold to create space for the students to feel and discuss what mattered to them.

It could have easily been a case where the principal comes into the room and just lectures the kids about how stereotypes are wrong, or where the young man was called into someone’s office and received a stern talking to and some sort of punishment. Instead, the students were treated like members of a community, a family – one that sees the importance of each and every person feeling valued and safe.

I can only imagine what schools would begin to look like in Seattle if more would treat situations like this – one where a student says something very hurtful and bigoted (or just hurtful) about another and it impacts other students (because I am sure this occurs all the time)—as opportunities to provide a space for the feelings that resulted to be voiced and for healing to take place. It doesn’t erase the damage that was done, but it does pave a path towards understanding and healing. What better seeds for learning and growth can there be in a classroom?

Daemond Arrindell is a poet, performer and teaching artist. He is currently a faculty member of Freehold Theatre and is co-facilitating (for the 5th year) a poetry and theater residency at Monroe Correctional Complex for men. In the fall of 2012, he taught Seattle University’s first course in Slam Poetry. He has performed in venues across the country and has been repeatedly commissioned by both the Seattle and Bellevue Arts Museums.

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